(Paris) – French President François Hollande’s announcement on February 21, 2017, that France has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration is a strong signal to the international community and strengthens the legal protection for children and their education, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said today. By endorsing the declaration, a commitment to protect schools in times of conflict, France recognizes the importance of educational institutions to a country’s future.

French President François Hollance annonces France's endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration during the opening of the "Protect Children From War" inter-ministerial Conference co-organized by France and UNICEF in Paris, February 21, 2017.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

The decision followed several months of efforts by UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch to raise the French authorities’ awareness of the importance of this declaration to protect children caught up in conflicts.

“When troops attack or occupy schools, students and teachers are put in grave danger or are pushed out and deprived of their right to learn,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “By upholding its support to this declaration, France can use both its international leadership abilities and its instructions to its own peacekeeping troops to protect students and school staff in conflict zones around the world.”

France becomes the 58th country and the first permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to endorse this declaration, opening the way for other countries to do the same.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF France carried out communication campaigns to inform and mobilize the general public to support a government move to endorse the declaration. Two films (one by Human Rights Watch and one by UNICEF France) were created and broadcast on social media.

Around the world, schools are attacked or being occupied by military forces and armed groups in conflict zones. It endangers the lives of students, their teachers, and denies hundreds of thousands of children their right to education.

“Protecting schools can guarantee a better future for a country embroiled in conflict,” said Sébastien Lyon, director of UNICEF France. “Once the fighting is over, having an educated populace and functional education infrastructures can strengthen recovery and rebuilding and improve the chance of keeping the peace.”

The announcement of France’s endorsement of this declaration comes at a time when an international conference co-organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNICEF on protecting children from war is being held in Paris, on February 21. Its aim is to mobilize the attention and efforts of the international community to intensify collective action to prevent and put an end to serious attacks on children in armed conflicts.

Currently, one child in 10 lives in a country or zone affected by armed conflict. In recent years, schools have been deliberately attacked in several crises and continue to be occupied, destroyed, and used by armies in conflict zones, depriving many children of their education. Yet, even in conflict, the best interests of the child should be a priority, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said.

The Safe Schools Declaration is a non-binding agreement proposed for support by countries around the world that was opened for endorsement at an international conference in Oslo, Norway, in May 2015. Under the declaration, schools can be protected even if they have been deserted by students and staff, to avoid a lasting disruption of the country’s education service when it needs it most – during post-war reconstruction.

The 57 countries that had already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration include a little over half of the European Union member states, half of NATO member states, and 12 Francophone member states.

Several of the countries most affected by attacks on schools and military use of schools have also endorsed the declaration, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. A second conference on safety in schools will be organized by the Argentine government on March 28 and 29, 2017.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The Afghan government is failing to protect tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, from hazardous conditions in the workplace, in violation of Afghanistan’s labor laws.

Helal, 10, works as a brick maker at a brick kiln outside Kabul. He told Human Rights Watch that the brick mold is heavy and his hands hurt working with wet clay. Helal doesn’t go to school because he has to work. 

© 2016 Bethany Matta/Human Rights Watch

The 31-page report, “‘They Bear All the Pain’: Hazardous Child Labor in Afghanistan,” documents how child workers work dangerous jobs in Afghanistan’s carpet industry; as bonded labor in brick kilns; and as metal workers. They perform tasks that could result in illness, injury, or even death due to hazardous working conditions and poor enforcement of safety and health standards. Many children who work under those conditions combine the burdens of a job with school, or forego education altogether. Working compels many children in Afghanistan to leave school prematurely. Only half of children involved in child labor attend school. 

“Thousands of Afghan children risk their health and safety every day to put food on the family table,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Afghan government needs to do a better job of protecting its children – and the country’s future – by enforcing the law prohibiting dangerous work for children.”

The Afghan government is failing to protect tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, from hazardous conditions in the workplace, in violation of Afghanistan’s labor laws. 

The government has failed to enforce prohibitions against child labor in hazardous industries, and has stalled in its effort to overhaul its labor law to bring it into line with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. Government institutions responsible for enforcing the law often lack the capacity to inspect workplaces, with the result that children working in prohibited jobs go unnoticed and unprotected.

In 2014, the Afghan government published a list of 19 hazardous occupations prohibited for children. These jobs include carpet weaving, metal work, and brick making. While a lack of resources is an important factor in the persistence of child labor in hazardous industries, the Afghan government has also failed to enforce its labor laws through penalties for violators and a strategy to end exploitative labor conditions.

A brick kiln manager in Kabul told Human Rights Watch: “There are children here, starting from 10 years or 8 years of age to 15 or 16… They wake up at 3 in the morning and work until about evening… They complain of pain, but what can they do? The kids are here to make a living. They bear all the pain to do all the work.”

Extreme poverty often drives Afghan children into hazardous labor. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Landlessness, illiteracy, high unemployment, and continuing armed conflict in much of the country are among the most important factors contributing to chronic poverty and, as a result, child labor.

A 13-year-old metal worker in Kabul said, “My fingers have been cut from the sharp edges of the metal and slammed by the hammer. My finger has also been caught in the trimming-beading machine. When your nail gets hit by a hammer or caught in the machine, it becomes black and eventually falls off.”

Thousands of Afghan children risk their health and safety every day to put food on the family table. The Afghan government needs to do a better job of protecting its children – and the country’s future – by enforcing the law prohibiting dangerous work for children.

Phelim Kine

Deputy Director, Asia Division

While work that is appropriate to a child’s age and under healthy and safe conditions can be beneficial to the child’s development and allow them to contribute to their family’s basic needs, work that interferes with a child’s education, or is likely to jeopardize their health or safety, is generally considered “child labor” and is prohibited under international law.

Although pilot projects extending community-based schools to reach vulnerable children have been promising, support for these schools is inadequate to the need. Eradicating child labor in Afghanistan is not feasible so long as extreme poverty continues, but the government and its donors can take steps to protect children from the risks associated with working in particularly dangerous or unhealthy conditions.

Those steps include increasing the number of labor inspectors to adequately cover the entire country; giving priority to monitoring hazardous sectors; and offering the Afghan government targeted technical assistance in devising and implementing policies, standards, and regulations against child labor. Both the government and its foreign donors should devote more resources to expanding educational support to all working children.

The government has a legal obligation under international law to take immediate action to eradicate hazardous child labor. Both Afghanistan and its foreign donors should take urgent steps to protect children from the risks associated with working in particularly dangerous or unhealthy conditions.

“When children are of legal age and work in safe conditions, they can help provide vital livelihood support for many Afghan families,” Kine said. “But the Afghan government has an obligation to enforce the laws that protect children in the workplace, and ensure that they neither have to sacrifice their education or safety as the price for supporting their families.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Zama Neff is the executive director of the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch. She also co-chairs the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). Neff has conducted fact-finding investigations and is the author of reports and articles on a range of issues affecting children, including access to education, police violence, refugee protection, the worst forms of child labor, and discrimination against women and girls. She has published on op-ed pages in major international and US publications and speaks regularly to the media. During a sabbatical, she ran a protection monitoring team for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sri Lanka. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1999, Neff clerked for a US federal judge, advocated on behalf of immigrants and refugees in the US, and worked with community development and women's organizations in Honduras. She is a graduate of Davidson College and New York University School of Law.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Residents who want to evacuate from their homes gather while waiting for a vehicle after Islamist militants, who had holed up in a primary school, retreated after a gunbattle with troops but were holding some civilians hostage, in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato, Philippines June 21, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Marconi Navales
On June 21, dozens of armed Islamist rebels stormed and occupied a school on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the latest in a slew of attacks that highlight the continued risks children face seeking an education in the volatile region.

The rebels, reported by the police to be members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, attacked the school in Pigcawayan town, North Cotabato province and allegedly held several students hostage. The rebels later withdrew and no injuries were reported.

In recent years the various conflicts in Mindanao have placed students and teachers at particular risk. Both Islamist rebels and government security forces with state-backed militias have attacked schools, or have used them as barracks and outposts. This not only puts students and teachers in danger, but also undermines their right to education.

In one particularly egregious case, in September 2015 paramilitary groups identified with the military attacked a tribal school in Surigao del Sur province, killing the school administrator and two tribal leaders on campus.

More recently, fighting in Marawi City between Islamist militants and the military has destroyed several schools, and dozens of teachers and educators remain unaccounted for. There is no evidence to suggest the Pigcawayan attack was directly linked to ongoing fighting in Marawi City.

The Philippine government’s response to the Pigcawayan attack should not place students and school administrators at unnecessary risk. The government should also sign the Safe Schools Declaration, which seeks to protect schools and universities from military use by all sides during armed conflict.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl covers anti-LGBT messages in rainbow handprints during a Pride rally in Manila on June 27, 2015.

© 2015 Bullit Marquez/AP Photo

(Manila, June 22, 2017) – Students across the Philippines experience bullying and discrimination in school because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While Philippine law provides protections against discrimination and exclusion in schools, lawmakers and school administrators need to take steps to ensure they are fully implemented.

The 68-page report, “‘Just Let Us Be’: Discrimination Against LGBT Students in the Philippines,” documents the range of abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in secondary school. It details widespread bullying and harassment, discriminatory policies and practices, and an absence of supportive resources that undermine the right to education under international law and put LGBT youth at risk.

Students across the Philippines experience bullying and discrimination in school because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“LGBT students in the Philippines are often the targets of ridicule and even violence,” said Ryan Thoreson, a fellow in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. “And in many instances, teachers and administrators are participating in this mistreatment instead of speaking out against discrimination and creating classrooms where everybody can learn.”

Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth interviews and discussions with 98 students and 46 parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, service providers, and experts on education in 10 cities in Luzon and the Visayas. LGBT students said that existing protections are irregularly or incompletely implemented, and that secondary school policies and practices often facilitate discrimination and fail to provide LGBT students with information and support.

Lawmakers in the Philippines have recognized that bullying in secondary schools is a problem and have taken important steps to address it, Human Rights Watch said. In 2013, the Philippine Congress passed an anti-bullying law and the Department of Education issued regulations prohibiting bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. During the 2016 presidential campaign, too, Rodrigo Duterte vocally condemned bullying and discrimination against LGBT people.
“President Duterte has spoken out against bullying and discrimination against LGBT people in the past, and he should do so now,” Thoreson said.

Yet Human Rights Watch’s research shows that LGBT students still encounter physical bullying, verbal harassment, sexual assault, and cyberbullying in schools. Many students were not aware of anti-bullying policies or did not know where to seek help if they were persistently bullied.
“When I was in high school, they’d push me, punch me,” said Carlos M., a 19-year-old gay student from Olongapo City. “When I’d get out of school, they’d follow me [and] push me, call me ‘gay,’ ‘faggot,’ things like that.” (Names of students quoted in the report were changed for their protection.)
The hostility students face in school is often exacerbated by discriminatory policies and practices, Human Rights Watch said. Schools in the Philippines impose gendered uniform and hair-length requirements without exceptions for students who do not identify as their sex assigned at birth. These inflexible requirements cause many LGBT students to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at school, be turned away by school guards, or skip class or drop out.
“The failure to pass an anti-discrimination bill puts LGBT kids at risk of discrimination and violence,” said Meggan Evangelista of LAGABLAB Network. “If lawmakers are serious about making schools safe for all students, they should stop delaying and pass anti-discrimination protections as soon as possible.”
Harassed students seeking help are hindered by the lack of information and resources pertaining to LGBT youth at the secondary school level. LGBT issues are rarely discussed in school curricula – and when they do arise, teachers often make negative or dismissive comments about LGBT students, including instructing their students that being LGBT is sinful or unnatural.
Bullied as a Child, Gay Filipino Comes Into His Own

Bullied as a Child, Gay Filipino Comes Into His Own

Marching in the Philippines Pride Parade helped Patrick to accept his sexuality and come out. 

“They say that gays are the main focus of HIV,” said Jonas E., a 17-year-old gay boy in high school in Mandaue City. “I’m a bit ashamed of that, because I was once in section where I’m the only gay, and they kept pointing at me.” Virtually none of the students interviewed had received LGBT-inclusive sexuality education, leaving them ill-equipped to navigate relationships and keep themselves safe.
Very few students have access to teachers or counselors who are trained to provide support for LGBT students as they grow and develop. While LGBT student groups have been highly successful at providing peer education and support at the university level, few exist in secondary schools.
Authorities at every level of government should take steps to promote student safety, equality, and access to education in schools, Human Rights Watch said. Congress should pass anti-discrimination legislation that protects LGBT students in schools. The Department of Education should survey schools to ensure anti-bullying protections are being fully implemented, train teachers to be responsive to the needs of LGBT students, incorporate LGBT issues into curricular modules, and promulgate model policies prohibiting discrimination in schools. At the school level, administrators should strengthen anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies to ensure LGBT youth are safe and respected.
“Prohibiting bullying against LGBT youth was an important first step,” Thoreson said. “Now lawmakers and school administrators should take concrete steps to make those protections meaningful and promote respect for LGBT youth throughout the Philippines’ school system.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Students across the Philippines experience bullying and discrimination in school because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. While Philippine law provides protections against discrimination and exclusion in schools, lawmakers and school administrators need to take steps to ensure they are fully implemented.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl covers anti-LGBT messages in rainbow handprints during a Pride rally in Manila on June 27, 2015.

© 2015 Bullit Marquez/AP Photo


Patrick’s knees were shaking as he marched with his university in the Pride Parade in the Philippine capital, Manila. “It’s a big step for me,” he said. “To accept my sexuality and to come out of the closet.”

In the parade, Patrick (not his real name), 19, carried the banner for Parada, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) student group he had joined three weeks earlier at De La Salle University. Although he had recently come out to his family, he said, he had never felt so publicly “out” and exposed.

He has come a long way. Patrick said he knew, even as a young boy in elementary school, that he was “different.” For years, he was bullied in school for being feminine – by students and at times even by teachers.

A new Human Rights Watch report, “Just Let Us Be,” examines how many LGBT students in the Philippines are excluded or marginalized in schools, where they are often bullied, discriminated against, and, in some cases, physically or sexually assaulted. Many lawmakers and school administrators have recognized that bullying of LGBT youth is a serious problem and have designed policies to address the problem. But their policies,  such as outlined under the national Anti-Bullying Law, have not been adequately enforced.

Parada provided a support system that Patrick was anxious to use. The organization’s president reminded him that coming to grips with his sexual orientation would be a process: “It’s not just like with a snap of a finger, you’ll shout that you’re gay.” After the parade, Patrick decided to apply for a leadership position within the organization, and enthusiastically embraced his new role.

Uniform guidelines for students hang on a wall at a university in Manila, November 2016. 

© 2016 Ryan Thoreson/Human Rights Watch

“[It] is really challenging, because I just came out,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I’m new.”

The harassment Patrick suffered in secondary school was difficult for him. “They would call me bakla,” he said, referring to the Tagalog word often used pejoratively for a person believed to be gay. Other students called him malamia, or feminine. The bullying began in elementary school. “I developed this concept for how a man should walk, how a man should talk. I became the person that I’m not, just for them to stop teasing me.”

Eventually, Patrick said, he became a bully himself: “I bullied the students who bullied me back, and then I became friends with them, because I was one of them.”

The most common form of bullying that LGBT students in the Philippines described was verbal harassment. Some students also said they were punched, slapped, and shoved.  And several gay or bisexual boys and transgender girls said they had been subjected to simulated sexual activity or mock rape.

His high school counselor would quote Bible passages and say things like, “God created Adam and Eve, and not Adam and Steve.”

Patrick said that at his high school, “sometimes teachers would join in with ‘bakla,’ ‘bakla’” Their disapproval in this predominantly Roman Catholic country was often expressed in overtly religious terms.  His high school counselor would quote Bible passages and say things like, “God created Adam and Eve, and not Adam and Steve.” Other teachers would simply ignore anti-gay bullying.

Patrick spent much of high school in denial about his sexuality, but during his first year in college,  he started working up the courage to come out to his family and friends.

“I am one of the lucky ones in our community,” he said. “The people that surround me are accepting, or at least, tolerating. When his grandfather found out, he sent a message to Patrick that said, “It’s okay, it’s normal, I accept you.”

Around this time, Patrick also decided to take a leave of absence from college to deal with his depression and anxiety. “I [couldn’t] focus on my academics, so I decided to take a break and have some soul searching,” he said. “That started my journey on accepting myself.” Patrick spent the next year taking “baby steps.” He convinced his parents to let him see a psychiatrist, which has helped, he said.

One year later, he returned to De La Salle and joined Parada, making friends in the LGBT community for the first time.  LGBT student groups like Parada are extremely rare at the secondary school level, despite the intense bullying and harassment that many LGBT youth face there.  But LGBT groups  have become increasingly common at the university level.

Patrick is one of the lucky ones. In being part of Parada, he has found a support system and friends who can relate to his experiences.

“And now I’m out, out to everybody,” he said. Moreover, he’s an instrumental part of a community he wishes he’d found earlier in life, and a source of support for other LGBT youth. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A garment worker sews clothing in a building near the site of the Rana Plaza building collapse. 

© 2014 G.M.B. Akash/Panos

Our lives are full of products produced in faraway countries—think of the clothes you wear or the device you are reading this on. In many cases, consumers have little information about how they are produced, or under what conditions. Human Rights Watch has documented a wide range of human rights abuses in the context of global supply chains, such as labour rights abuses and anti-union tactics against factory workers in the garment industry, hazardous child labour in artisanal gold mines, and severe labour rights abuses against migrant workers in construction.

I have interviewed children working in small-scale gold mines in the Philippines, Ghana, Tanzania, and Mali, supplying the global market with gold for jewellery, smartphones, laptops, and other goods. These children risk their lives in deep, unstable pits, suffer pain and ill-health from the hard work, and process gold with toxic mercury, which can cause lifelong illness and disability.

At the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, governments should pledge to protect human rights in global supply chains—and they should act on this pledge. The 450 million people working in global supply chains need robust rules to protect them.

It is good news that Germany has put the issue of sustainable supply chains on the G20 agenda, continuing its global leadership on the issue. The German government also made sure that the issue of sustainable supply chains was high up on the agenda of the G7 meeting it hosted in 2015. Germany also pushed for strong protections for workers in global supply chains during discussions at the International Labour Conference in 2016.

Last month, Germany hosted the G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial Meeting. In their final declaration, ministers recognized that labour rights abuses “cannot be part of the competition” and made a commitment to “strengthen compliance with fundamental principles and rights at work in global supply chains.” They called for accelerated action to end child labour and modern slavery in global supply chains and underlined the responsibility of businesses to conduct due diligence to ensure that human rights are respected in their operations.

Last but not least, the ministers reiterated their support for a decision taken last year by the International Labour Conference–the global summit of governments, workers, and employers – to consider whether a new, legally binding international standard on decent work on global supply chains is needed.

These commitments are important, as they move the international agenda on global supply chains forward and bring on board allies from within the G20—a group that includes various western countries but also Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey. G20 governments should make sure that their final G20 declaration—the Leaders’ Declaration—reflects these important commitments made by the labour ministers.

But the work does not end here; bolder action is needed. The Leaders’ Declaration should support mandatory rules on human rights safeguards for companies, building on models developed by the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. Such “due diligence” rules should legally require companies to assess, prevent, mitigate, and remediate harmful human rights impacts of their actions. Companies should also be required to publicly disclose their suppliers and report on their human rights due diligence efforts.

In addition, governments should commit to promoting and protecting space for civil society, trade unions, whistle-blowers, and communities to expose and demand an end to human rights violations in the context of global supply chains.

Germany can and should play a crucial role in shaping a strong agenda to protect human rights in global supply chains. The work is only just beginning. 

This article was written as part of a Business & Human Rights Resource Centre blog series 'Engaging the G20 on business and human rights.'

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

LGBT Rainbow Flag

© 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

Texas’ governor signed into law a controversial bill that ensures child welfare agencies that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or religion will still receive government support.

Under the new law, signed on June 15, state institutions can’t withhold funding, licenses, or contracts from any of the agencies that place children in foster or adoptive homes if the agencies refuse to provide services or make referrals that conflict with their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The law additionally shields service providers that refuse to help youth find contraception or abortion services.

The bill was roundly criticized by LGBT advocates and children’s rights advocates, both because it invites discrimination against qualified prospective parents and because it jeopardizes the best interests of children who would benefit from a stable, loving home.

The new law will protect adoption and foster care agencies that reject same-sex couples if the agency believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman. It will also protect state funding for agencies that provide counseling or educational services in line with agencies’ religious beliefs – something advocates worry could lead to conversation therapy for LGBT kids.

Beyond the LGBT context, the law opens the door for agencies to discriminate on other grounds – for example, to reject prospective parents based on their faith or marital status or to require Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or atheist children in their care to submit to Christian instruction.

This law is even more stringent than similar laws passed in South Dakota and Alabama in 2017. Not only does it license discrimination in adoption and foster care services, but it also applies to Texas’ family preservation and support services, counseling for youth, and programs to assist abused and neglected children.

This isn’t the only way LGBT people are being discriminated against in Texas. A special legislative session, starting on July 18, will have restrictions on transgender students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms on the agenda – something our research shows jeopardize the safety, health, and well-being of young people.

Instead of doubling down on discrimination, Governor Abbott and the legislature should put children first, and work to ensure that all youth in Texas have loving homes and safe schools.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

We write in advance of the 69th pre-sessional working group of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and its review of South Korea’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This submission focuses on restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights and sex education in schools, ongoing discrimination against women, and addresses articles 3, 5, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 16 of the Convention. 

Restrictions on Women’s Reproductive Rights

Article 12

In a 2014 statement on sexual and reproductive health and rights, the CEDAW Committee affirmed that unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity, and that state parties should remove punitive measures for women who undergo abortion.[1]

South Korea’s laws on abortion are punitive and harmful to women and girls. Abortion is considered a crime, and any woman who undergoes an abortion is subject to up to one year of imprisonment or fines up to 2 million won (US $1800). Healthcare workers who provide abortions can face up to two years in prison.[2]

Exceptions are permitted only in cases of rape or incest, if the parents cannot marry legally, if continuation of the pregnancy is likely to jeopardize the pregnant woman’s health, or when the pregnant woman or her spouse has one of several hereditary disorders or communicable diseases that are designated by government decree. Women who are married must have their spouse’s permission to obtain an abortion, and all abortions, for any reason, are prohibited after 24 weeks of pregnancy.[3]

The criminalization of abortion means that many abortions are illegally performed in South Korea. Because of this, abortion care is unregulated, clandestine, and far more dangerous for women and girls who seek abortions, than if the procedure were legal. Restrictive abortion policies are associated with higher numbers of unsafe abortion worldwide.[4]

In 2016, the South Korean government threatened to restrict access to abortion further by toughening penalties on medical providers who perform abortions illegally. Public protests opposing these changes took place in Seoul in October 2016 and at the time of this writing, no amendments had been adopted.[5] 

The government has expressed concern about the country’s falling birth rate, but further restricting abortion is not a response in line with international human rights law. To accomplish policy goals related to population, the government should respect women’s rights to make their own reproductive decisions, and instead consider adopting measures that make it easier for people to have children, or have more children.

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee ask the government of South Korea:

  • What changes in abortion policy will President Moon Jae-in request and implement?
  • What steps does the government intend to take to remove punitive measures against women who undergo abortions and medical personnel who provide abortions?
  • What steps does the government intend to take to protect the rights of mothers to be free from gender discrimination, such as ensuring equality in parental care leave?

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government of South Korea to:

  • Immediately amend its laws to decriminalize abortion and remove all penalties for women who seek abortions, and for doctors and other medical personnel involved in providing abortions.
  • Adopt regulations and policies that make it easier for people to choose to be parents, promote equality in the use of parental leave by women and men, and eliminate stigma and discriminatory provisions in law and policy that disadvantage a single parent, or parents who are not officially married, and their children.

LGBT Rights and Sex Education in Schools

Article 10, 12

Accurate and inclusive sexuality education is integral to upholding the fundamental rights to health, education, and information, and can help reduce unwanted pregnancy, maternal mortality, and HIV.[6] In February 2014, the CEDAW Committee said that adolescents should have access to accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, including responsible sexual behavior, prevention of early pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.[7]

Education ministry officials in Seoul confirmed in February 2017 that South Korea’s new national sex education curriculum will not mention homosexuality. This continues a backsliding that began in 2015, when the government began training district education officials country-wide on new sex education guidelines that made no mention of sexual minorities.[8]

This policy discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth and violates their rights to health, education, and information. Human Rights Watch believes the policy also violates South Korea’s international human rights commitments, and could be harmful to young people and negatively affect public health. HIV infections have increased sharply in South Korea since 2000, and infections are increasing fastest among men in their 20s.[9]

The South Korean government has at times attempted to clarify that the curriculum’s silence should not be taken as exclusionary, with an involved government official stating, “The fact that the guideline does not contain sexual minorities does not necessarily mean that teachers should not do the related lessons.”[10] Human Rights Watch believes a curriculum that neglects inclusion of information about sexual orientation and gender identity fails students, and ad hoc or optional training programs for teachers are not an adequate substitute.

Local governments remove LGBTI protections

In August 2015, South Korea’s Gender Ministry sent the municipal government of Daejeon an order to delete articles in its charter that would protect LGBTI rights as part of gender equality. The Daejon municipal government later removed those articles from the city charter.[11]

Restrictions on LGBT organizations

In February 2015, the government denied to allow an LGBT support group, the Beyond the Rainbow Foundation, to officially register in a discriminatory denial of equal protection of the law and freedom to assemble and associate. The foundation raises funds to support the LGBT movement in South Korea. It documents discrimination against LGBT people, advocates for their rights, and aims to make civic space safer for LGBT people and their families. Denying official registration to the Beyond the Rainbow Foundation curtails this group’s ability to receive tax-deductible donations and operate in full compliance with the law.[12] In March 2017, the Beyond the Rainbow Foundation won its registration case at the appellate court. The Ministry of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court on April 6th, and at the time of this writing, the case was pending at the Supreme Court.[13] 

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee ask the government of South Korea:

  • What steps have been taken to ensure that accurate, affirming, and age-appropriate information about sexual orientation and gender identity is available and accessible to students in the South Korean schools?

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government of South Korea to:

  • Immediately reverse the decision to exclude mention of homosexuality in the national sex education curriculum to ensure the rights to information, education, and health for all persons in South Korea and include appropriate, nondiscriminatory teacher training on this topic;
  • Permit the Beyond the Rainbow Foundation to file its application for registration with the Ministry of Justice, or another appropriate government department, and ensure the application is considered promptly and without discrimination.

Ongoing Discrimination against Women

Articles 3, 5, 11, 13, 15, 16

Human Rights Watch shares the concerns raised by the UN Human Rights Committee in December 2015 relating to ongoing discrimination against women, including patriarchal attitudes and gender-based stereotypes concerning the role of women in the family and in society; the particularly small proportion of women in decision-making positions; the high rate of women in irregular employment and the markedly high wage gap between men and women; and the widespread social stigma and discrimination against unmarried mothers, including their unequal treatment with respect to the provision of child allowance compared to adoptive parents.[14]

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it calls upon the government of South Korea to:

  • Develop measures to eliminate existing patriarchal attitudes and gender stereotypes, by implementing comprehensive awareness-raising programmes to foster equality between women and men in the family and in society; and develop comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education programs for schools and the general public;
  • Ensure equal pay, and eliminate discrimination in irregular employment;
  • Eliminate discrimination against unmarried mothers in all areas of government services and aid.

[1] CEDAW Committee, “Statement of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on sexual and reproductive health and rights: Beyond 2014 ICPD review,” 57th Session (Feb. 10-28, 2014), http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CEDAW/Statements/SRHR26Feb2014.pdf (accessed on May 1, 2017).

[2] Republic of Korea Criminal Act, 1995, arts. 269-270; see also Heather Barr (Human Rights Watch), “Abortion Should Not be a Crime,” commentary, The Korea Times, November 10, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/10/abortion-should-not-be-crime.

[3] Republic of Korea Mother-Child Health Act of 1986, art. 14.

[4] Susan A. Cohen, “Facts and consequences: Legality, incidence and safety of abortion worldwide,” Guttmacher Policy Review, November 20, 2009, https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2009/11/facts-and-consequences-legality-incidence-and-safety-abortion-worldwide (accessed May 31, 2017).

[5] Amnesty International, “South Korea: Stop Criminalization of Abortion,” October 28, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/10/south-korea-stop-criminalization-of-abortion/ (accessed May 15, 2017).

[6] United Nations Population Fund, “Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” September 30, 2016, https://www.unfpa.org/comprehensive-sexuality-education (accessed June 6, 2017); UNESCO, “Comprehensive Sexuality Education: A Global Review,” 2015, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002357/235707e.pdf (accessed June 7, 2017).

[7] “Beyond 2014 ICPD review,” supra. note 1.

[8] Kyle Knight, “South Korea Backslides on Sex Education,” commentary, Human Rights Watch dispatch, February 17, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/17/south-korea-backslides-sex-education; Human Rights Watch, “Letter to the Government of South Korea on Human Rights and Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” July 20, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/21/letter-government-south-korea-human-rights-and-comprehensive-sexuality-education.

[9] Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of HIV and Tuberculosis Control, “HIV/AIDS Control in the Republic of Korea.” 2011, http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/country/documents//ce_KR_Narrative_Report%5B1%5D.pdf (accessed June 7, 2017); Hae-Wol Cho, “What’s next for HIV/AIDS in Korea?” Osong Public Health and Research Perspectives, December 2013: 4(6), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3922106/#bib2 (accessed May 1, 2017), pp. 291–292,

[10] Kyle Knight, “South Korea Backslides on Sex Education,” commentary, Human Rights Watch dispatch, February 17, 2017.

[11] “South Korea's Gender Ministry blasted for denying LGBTI rights,” The Korea Herald, October 7, 2015, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20151007001092 (accessed May 31, 2017).

[12] Kyle Knight (Human Rights Watch), “LGBT group deserves an answer,” commentary, Korea JoongAng Daily, April 22, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/22/lgbt-group-deserves-answer.

[13] Jang-Ho Lee, “[판결](단독) ‘법무부, 性소수자 인권재단 허가해야,” Law Times Korea, March 20, 2017, https://www.lawtimes.co.kr/Legal-News/Legal-News-View?serial=108730 (accessed May 17, 2017); Min-Hee Ryu, counsel of the case, informed Human Rights Watch that as of May 10, 2017, the case is pending at the Supreme Court of South Korea.

[14] HRC, “Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of the Republic of Korea,” U.N. Doc CCPR/C/KOR/CO/4, December 3, 2015, http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR/C/KOR/CO/4&Lang=En (accessed May 18, 2017).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – New York State has taken an important step toward ending child marriage, as Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 20, 2017 signed legislation to dramatically reduce the circumstances under which children can marry, Human Rights Watch said today. Between 2001 to 2010, 3,850 children under 18 married in New York State.

July 20th 2017, Governer Cuomo signs anti-child marriage law. 2017 Edward Herbert.

Under the previous law, the minimum age for marriage in New York was 18, but the law allowed children of 16 and 17 to marry with parental approval, and children of 14 and 15 to marry with permission from a judge and their parents. The vast majority of US states permit marriage under age 18 under some circumstances. In 27 US states, there is no limit to how young a child can marry if a judge authorizes the marriage.

“Child marriage is a dirty secret in the US, and other states should follow New York’s example by enacting laws to help end this harmful practice,” said Heather Barr, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “US state laws permitting child marriage are out of step with the rest of the world since even countries with high rates of child marriage are recognizing the harm it causes and taking steps to prevent these marriages.”

Child marriage is a dirty secret in the US, and other states should follow New York’s example by enacting laws to help end this harmful practice

Heather Barr

Senior Women's Rights Researcher

A version of the law, A.5524 and S.4407, was originally introduced in the New York State Assembly in 2016, and reintroduced in 2017. It prohibits all marriages before the age of 17 and permits 17-year-olds to marry only with a judge’s permission. Human Rights Watch worked with the organizations Unchained at Last, Tahirih Justice Center, Sanctuary for Families, and the National Organization for Women to urge New York lawmakers to pass the bill. A law curtailing child marriage in Virginia came into effect in June 2016, the governor of Texas signed an anti-child marriage bill last week, and similar legislation has been introduced in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Human Rights Watch has done extensive research on child marriage around the world, interviewing hundreds of married children in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi, Nepal, South Sudan, Tanzania, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch has also advocated for an end to child marriage in other countries, including Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Of these countries, only Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen have laws that would permit a 14-year-old to marry.

Child marriage occurs in every region of the world and globally, one out of every four girls marries before age 18, and 15 million girls under 18 marry each year—one every two seconds. The overwhelming majority of married children are girls, most of whom marry spouses who are older than they are—in some cases much older.

A growing body of research demonstrates that child marriage is associated with, and in some cases causes, severe harm, wherever married children live. A 2010 study found that girls or young women in the US who married before age 19 were 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school than their unmarried counterparts, and only 25 percent as likely to complete college. Girls who marry as early teens, before age 16, in the US are 31 percent more likely to end up in poverty later in life.

Researchers have found significant associations between child marriage and mental and physical health disorders. Research from other countries shows a correlation between child marriage and domestic violence. Married girls often find it more difficult than married women to escape an abusive or unhappy marriage, and to get services such as shelter and legal assistance.

Children who marry sometimes are pressed or forced to do so by their parents. The previous New York requirement for parental consent provided no protection in such situations.

Under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which went into effect in January 2016, countries around the world, including the US, agreed to a target of ending all child marriage by 2030. Countries including Germany, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden have recently revised their laws in an effort to reduce child marriage. Many other countries have developed or are developing national action plans for ending child marriage by 2030.

“The research is clear—child marriage is deeply harmful to the children and their families, and there is growing global consensus that 18 should be the minimum age for marriage,” Barr said. “The US, through its foreign aid programs, has been a leader in urging an end to child marriage in other regions, including Africa and Asia, but shockingly, virtually all US states still allow it.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The blood stains on the classroom walls couldn’t be washed away following the Taliban attack on the middle school in Postak Bazaar village in Afghanistan. ‘We had to chip it away from the wall with an axe,’ a school official told Human Rights Watch.

But the blood wasn’t that of the school’s students. It was that of seven members of the Afghan National Police, a counter-insurgency force that had set up their military base inside the school. That attack was in 2010. After the Taliban retook the area, their fighters too slept in the school.

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the entrance of a local school in Kandahar City

© 2010 Nikola Solic / Reuters

By 2015, government forces were back, and established their base with sandbagged positions on the second floor, while students tried to continue their schooling below.

Alarmed school officials obtained a letter from the Kabul authorities ordering the forces to leave, but their commander ignored it. At exam time, school officials again presented the letter, but the soldiers fired their guns toward the assembled teachers and students, who fled.

Since the Australia-supported military intervention in Afghanistan began in 2001, foreign donors have invested heavily in education, building schools and providing textbooks across the country. The expansion of education in Afghanistan, especially for girls, has been one of the success stories of the past 15 years. But as the security situation has deteriorated, schools throughout Afghanistan have been under threat, not only from resurgent Taliban forces but also from the Afghan state security forces mandated to protect them.

But it’s not just in Afghanistan that schools are under attack, or are being taken over by military forces. In the majority of countries with armed conflict around the world, schools are being attacked and used for military purposes, often converted into military bases or barracks. As the middle school in Postak Bazaar illustrates, the military use of schools not only turns schools into targets for attack, but the presence of armed forces inside a school can also interfere with education even if the school continues operating.

On 1 June, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced the government would contribute $2 million to improve education for children in emergencies, including facilitating safe places to learn.

But there’s one more thing Australia could do to protect children’s education in emergencies, and it doesn’t cost a cent: endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. The Safe Schools Declaration (not to be confused with the ‘Safe Schools’ program for LGBT students being debated in Australia) marks an inter-governmental political commitment where countries pledge to protect students, teachers, schools and universities from attack during times of war. Last month marked its two-year anniversary.

So far 66 nations have endorsed the declaration aimed at ending the use of schools by militaries or armed groups. But Australia isn’t yet one of them. The declaration builds a community of nations committed to respecting the civilian nature of schools and developing and sharing examples of good practices for protecting schools during war. Countries that join agree to restore access to education faster when schools are attacked, and to make it less likely that students, teachers and schools will be attacked in the first place. They seek to deter such attacks by promising to investigate and prosecute war crimes involving schools. And they agree to minimise the use of schools for military purposes so they don’t become targets for attack.

On 13 February, some members of the Australian Parliament urged the government to join an international effort to protect students, teachers and schools in countries affected by war.

MPs Chris Hayes, Trent Zimmerman, and Maria Vamvakinou laid out the chilling details of how students and schools are all too frequently deliberately attacked during armed conflict, pointing to examples in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria.

In response to a question on notice on 17 March, the Attorney-General George Brandis stated that the government had decided not to endorse the Safe Schools Guidelines and Declaration ‘as we assess they do not reflect existing international humanitarian law’. But in fact, countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, which have centuries-old traditions of professional militaries, were among the first to join the declaration.

The Declaration doesn’t create a legal obligation, but is a political commitment. Indeed, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is traditionally seen as the guardian of international humanitarian law, has actively disseminated the guidelines to its staff.

As both Hayes and Zimmerman noted, when Australia was on the United Nations Security Council in 2014, it felt it appropriate to encourage other countries to take action to protect schools. Australia used its vote to encourage all countries to consider concrete measures to deter military use of schools.

Australia’s Ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan, told the Security Council members that using schools for military purposes gravely endangers the lives of children. ‘We need to do more to protect schools, teachers, and students during conflict,’ Quinlan relayed to the UNSC. ‘The child victims around the world count on us.’

Quinlan, representing the Australian government, was spot on. On 15 May UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all UN member states to endorse the declaration. It’s now time for Australia to rediscover the position it held in 2014.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© 2017 Marco Tibasima for Human Rights Watch

(Dakar) – Millions of pregnant and married adolescent girls across many African countries are being denied their education because of discriminatory policies and practices, Human Rights Watch said today, on the Day of the African Child. More than 49 million girls are out of primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa, with 31 million of them out of secondary education, undermining their rights and limiting their opportunities.

Early marriage and teenage pregnancy are significant factors. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of girls marry before age 18, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage globally. The region also has the world’s highest prevalence of adolescent pregnancies. In 14 sub-Saharan countries, between 30 and 51 percent of girls give birth before they are 18. Cultural or religious beliefs often stigmatize unmarried, pregnant girls, with the result that many pregnant girls are forced into early marriages.

“The African continent has one of the world’s highest rates of adolescent pregnancy, but many governments insist on tackling this social and public health challenge by punishing girls and jeopardizing their future,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should focus on helping girls prevent unintended pregnancies and support their efforts to stay in school.”

Although most sub-Saharan African countries have made commitments to guarantee compulsory primary and lower-secondary education for all children, many exclude or expel pregnant girls and young mothers from school.

Tanzania and Sierra Leone are among the sub-Saharan African countries that have harmful policies and practices that discriminate against pregnant and married girls, Human Rights Watch research shows. In Tanzania, Human Rights Watch found that school officials conduct pregnancy tests and expel pregnant students. Nineteen-year-old Rita, from northern Tanzania, said she was expelled when she became pregnant at age 17. “Teachers found out I was pregnant,” she said. “I found out that no student is allowed to stay in school if they are pregnant … I didn’t have the information [sexual education] about pregnancies and what would happen.”

Some countries, including Cameroon, South Africa, and Zambia, have adopted “re-entry” policies so that adolescent mothers can return to school after giving birth. However, even if governments have these policies, school officials often fail to carry them out adequately or at all. Young mothers frequently lack support to re-enroll due to school fees and related costs, limited support from their families, stigma in school, and a lack of affordable childcare and related early childhood services.  

Many adolescent girls become pregnant because they lack the information needed to make informed decisions about their sexuality, family planning, and their reproductive health, while others are coerced into sex and require protection and access to health services and support. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of women ages 15 to 24 who have HIV globally live in sub-Saharan Africa and across the continent, and girls aged 15 to 19 are five times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys.

Sexuality and reproduction are often not included in the national school curricula. In a handful of countries where they are included in HIV awareness or “life skills” programs or subjects, teachers are frequently unwilling to teach these subjects because of the sexual and reproductive health content, or due to constraints on teaching time and resources.

All African governments have made a commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guarantee gender equality and universal access to free primary and secondary education for all children by 2030. The African Union has recognized the importance of ending child marriage, understanding that it is a major impediment to regional development and prosperity, and of eliminating all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination.

African governments should guarantee that girls have equal access to free quality primary and secondary education and support to stay in school, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should reverse harmful policies and practices that stigmatize girls, including forced pregnancy testing and regulations that allow for the expulsion of pregnant or married girls. Governments should also adopt laws that clearly set 18 as the minimum marriage age for boys and girls.

They should also adopt clear guidelines that instruct schools to re-enroll young mothers, provide support services in schools, and ensure that young mothers have access to early childhood services. Governments should also ensure that all children have access to age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality, and reproductive education. Where possible, school-based services should be connected to youth-friendly health services to ensure that adolescents receive impartial, nonjudgmental information.

“Governments have the prime responsibility to ensure that girls access free primary and secondary education, without facing stigma and discrimination,” said Martínez. “All governments should scrap policies that exclude pregnant or married girls, and put in place special measures to ensure that all adolescent girls can go to school.”

In Girls’ Own Words

In Malawi, roughly half of all girls marry before age 18. Between 2010 and 2013, 27,612 girls in primary and 4,053 girls in secondary schools dropped out due to marriage. During the same period, another 14,051 primary school girls and 5,597 secondary school girls dropped out because they were pregnant.

Girls told Human Rights Watch that marriage interrupted or ended their education, and with it their dreams to be doctors, teachers, or lawyers. Many said that they could not return to school after marriage because of lack of money to pay school fees, childcare, flexible school programs or adult classes, and the need to do household chores. Others said that their husbands or in-laws would not allow them to stay in school.

Kabwila N., 17, said she left school in standard eight at age 15 because of poverty. She said she could not go back to school because she felt ashamed about her pregnancy: “I would not want to go back to school because I started having sex with my boyfriend while at school. I am not fit to go back.”

South Sudan
In South Sudan, 52 percent of girls marry before their 18th birthday. According to UNESCO, over 1.3 million primary-school-age children are out of school, and the country has the world’s lowest secondary school enrollment rate, at four percent.

Mary K., of Yambio County, said: “My father refused me to go to school. He said it is a waste of money to educate a girl. He said marriage will bring me respect in the community. Now I have grown up and I know that this is not true. I cannot get work to support my children and I see girls who have some education can get jobs.”

Anyier D., 18, said that her uncles forced her to leave school at 14 in 2008 to marry an old man she did not know: “I would wish to return to school even if I have children. People think that I am happy but I am not because I don’t have an education. I don’t have something of my own and I am only cleaning offices. If I had gone to secondary school, I would get a good job.”

In Tanzania, fewer than a third of girls who complete primary schooling complete lower-secondary school, and over 15,000 girls drop out annually due to pregnancy. Human Rights Watch found that in some cases adolescent girls dropped out of lower-secondary school due to sexual exploitation and violence by teachers.

Joyce, 17, from Shinyanga, said: “There are teachers who engage in sexual affairs with students – I know many [girls] it has happened to ... If a student refuses, she is punished ... I feel bad … even if you report the matter it won’t be taken seriously. It makes us feel unsafe. Three girls dropped out because of teachers and sex in 2015.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Paris, June 15, 2017) – Equatorial Guinea’s mismanagement of its oil wealth has contributed to chronic underfunding of its public health and education systems in violation of its human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Declining oil reserves mean that there is very little time left for the government to correct course and significantly invest in improving the country’s woeful health and education indicators.

Equatorial Guinea’s mismanagement of its oil wealth has contributed to chronic underfunding of its public health and education systems in violation of its human rights obligations.

The 85-page report, “‘Manna From Heaven’?: How Health and Education Pay the Price for Self-Dealing in Equatorial Guinea,” reveals that the government spent only 2 to 3 percent of its annual budget on health and education in 2008 and 2011, the years for which data is available, while devoting around 80 percent to sometimes questionable large-scale infrastructure projects. The report also exposes how, according to evidence presented in money laundering investigations carried out by several countries, senior government officials reap enormous profits from public construction contracts awarded to companies they fully or partially own, in many cases in partnership with foreign companies, in an opaque and noncompetitive process. 

“Ordinary people have paid the price for the ruling elite’s corruption,” said Sarah Saadoun, business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now that the economy has been doubly hit by declining oil production and prices, it is more critical than ever for the government to invest public funds in social services instead of dubious infrastructure projects.”
Equatorial Guinea, a small central African nation of around 1 million people, took in approximately US$45 billion in oil revenues between 2000 and 2013, catapulting it from one of the world’s poorest countries to the one with the highest per capita income on the African continent. But since 2012, its GDP has contracted by 29 percent and, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), oil reserves are expected to run dry by 2035 unless new ones are found.

Teodoro Obiang has been president since he overthrew his uncle in 1979, making him the world’s longest-serving president. Despite its substantial wealth, the Obiang government has largely squandered the opportunity to use its oil riches to transform the lives of ordinary citizens. Progress on health and education indicators lags regional achievements, and some have deteriorated since the start of the oil boom. For example, vaccination rates are now among the worst in the world, and tuberculosis vaccination for newborns and infants dropped from 99 percent in 1997, to 35 percent in 2015. More than half of Equatorial Guinea’s population lacks access to nearby safe drinking water, a rate that has not changed since 1995, and, in 2012, 42 percent of primary-school-age children – 46,000 children – were not in school, the seventh-highest rate in the world.

Yet the government spent only US$140 million on education and $92 million on health in 2011; and $60 million on education and $90 million on health in 2008, according to reports by the IMF and World Bank.

At the same time, government officials have built personal fortunes from the country’s oil wealth. The United States Department of Justice accused the president’s eldest son, Teodorin Obiang, of using his position as minister of agriculture to amass US$300 million – more than the combined health and education budget in some years. The president appointed Teodorin vice president in June 2016.

The US case was settled when Teodorin agreed to forfeit US$30 million in assets located in the US, but a French money-laundering investigation against him will go to trial on June 19, 2017. Prosecutors there allege that between 2004 and 2011, €110 million was transferred from the Public Treasury into Teodorin’s account, fueling a €175 million Parisian shopping spree on a mansion, luxury automobiles, and designer goods. In October 2016, Switzerland opened an investigation into Teodorin, seizing 11 luxury cars and a US$100 million yacht.

After having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on government buildings in the capital of Malabo and economic center of the mainland, Bata, Equatorial Guinea is pouring billions of dollars into building a new administrative capital, Oyala, in the middle of the jungle. The IMF estimated that spending on Oyala would consume half the national budget in 2016. Above is a satellite image of the city under construction on January 12,2015. 

Satellite imagery © 2017 NASA

Since 2009, the government has spent virtually all its oil revenues on large-scale infrastructure projects. Evidence and interviews from investigations indicate that government officials frequently own stakes in companies that bid on public infrastructure projects. For example, businesspeople and IMF experts told US investigators that the presidential family owns stakes in several of the country’s largest construction firms. A US senate investigation and leaked State Department cable allege that the president at least partly owns the company with a monopoly on cement imports.

Obiang has defended his government’s high levels of infrastructure spending as necessary to modernize the country and its economy. But it appears that self-dealing frequently leads to inflated contract prices and approval for projects with little social value at the expense of crucial priorities including health and education services. Moreover, an opaque and noncompetitive procurement process generally makes it impossible to determine the amount and beneficiaries of public contracts.


In one stark example, the government is constructing a new administrative capital, Oyala, in the middle of the jungle after it spent hundreds of millions of dollars constructing government buildings in both the island capital, Malabo, and the largest city, Bata, for the same purpose. According to a 2015 IMF report, planned total spending on Oyala that year came to US$8 billion. An unpublished draft of a 2016 IMF report obtained by Human Rights Watch estimated that spending on Oyala would consume half of all public investment in 2016.

“While its oil reserves dry up, the government defends the status quo,” Saadoun said. “It may not be too late to put Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth to good use, but the window is closing fast.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am